Also available: Segment on the Cologne Christmas Market
Among the many cities on the Rhein, there are a select few that combine the best aspect of being both an urban metropolis and a tremendously popular tourist destination. When we receive family visitors who are urbanites, Cologne has almost always found its way on the itinerary. It's beautiful and typically crowded even when the weather is bad. There's always something going on.
Plus, it is about the most convenient city to visit. The Cologne train station is one of western Germany's major passenger rail hubs, and it sits directly on the banks of the Rhein below the Cathedral. You emerge from a train and you are there in the middle of the city. Fast trains (1.5 hours) go direct every hour from the Frankfurt Airport. Cologne benefits too from being at the major crossroads of various autobahns and more massive parking lots than most cities, yet far enough away from the denser urban sprawl from the Ruhr valley to the north to avoid the worst of the traffic (though it can be a challenge). It is a hub for several ferry networks on the Rhein.
The Cologne Cathedral is the prime reason to visit. Shown from the front in the first photo, this Cathedral is world-renowned as one of the most massive, exceeded only by the likes of the St. Peter Basilica in Vatican City. However, contrary to the other major Cathedrals in the region (see Speyer, Mainz, or Worms) this one is very new. The modern structure was completed in the 1880s after centuries of sitting unfinished. Several subspires are marked with the dates it was erected. The interior is just extraordinary, just from its sheer size. Many of the older murals and religious paintings have been well-preserved. One very unique sight is in the encased Christ Child figurine dressed in a long white flowing gown studded with jewels. The exterior is something to behold as well, especially since the church had sustained a lot of damage from the wars it had seen. The Cathedral is undergoing a several-year long renovation project, and the workshop is located underneath a walkway that goes past the nave, allowing people to see the work being done on some of the figurines.
The most fun part of the Cathedral is the climb to the top. In the first photo, the left spire shown is open to the public, that is, those who have the ability to handle 509 steep steps to the top. Hundreds do, every day. The climb is mostly in an enclosed tower which can get rather backed up, but for two Euros it is worth it for the gorgeous views of the city. The best views are over the Rhein, such as the view of the Gross St. Martin church in the second photograph. But, it is also fun just to look straight down over the market square at the rear and side of the church. About halfway up the climb is a break where you can see the church bells, some of which are about ten to twelve feet tall and wide. They are still in use, so you have to be careful to make sure you are outside the bell room when they ring so they don't blow your ears off! (Please note: I do recommend that only those in good physical condition attempt the climb, it is difficult.)
The Cathedral is also a center of activity below. Surrounding the base on all sides are souvenir stands that are very popular and offer not-so-bad deals compared with other tourist traps. The market square to the side is the location for the old-city part Cologne's annual Christmas Market, one of the largest in Germany, certainly the largest in the northwest. There is a large museum of Cologne's rich Roman history there -- like a number of Rheinland cities it began as a Roman fortress or settlement, but unfortunately few landmarks or ruins of that era remain. There are also several popular cafes and restaurants in the area.
The third photograph shows another view of the Gross St. Martin from the strand along the banks of the river. This is a very colorful and popular district, particularly in good weather. This church towers over a row of pastel-colored houses that also serve as outdoor cafes. There are playgrounds nearby. Behind the cafes is Cologne's major bar district, a haven for nightclubbers with over a dozen offerings. These clubs seem to follow a variety of ethnic themes, I recall there being Irish, Brazilian, and Caribbean-themed clubs there, for example. In front of the strand is Cologne's primary passenger harbor, offering day and cruises up and down the Rhein. The popular destinations are toward the south where many of the Rhein's best-known and best-loved castles reside amidst steep valleys covered with vineyards.
The other immensely popular part of the Cologne is its shopping district, one that greatly exceeds the length even of Heidelberg. This is a very modern shopping zone, with huge outlets from virtually all of Europe's major department store chains. The entrance to this district is marked with a special store that features the fragrance, oddly called 4711, that gave the name 'cologne' to a class of scented waters. This fragrance is still sold in its original 19th-century style packaging (distinctly colored teal). Scattered in this scene of modernity is the Köln Rathaus, under renovation when I was there, but another architectural wonder. The central facade is shown in the fourth photograph.
Cologne is also filled with theaters and entertainment venues. There is a massive theater next to the train station that brings in off-broadway productions, and the Cologne Arena is among Germany's largest indoor arenas that not only hosts the city's professional basketball and ice hockey teams, but also world figure skating and ice hockey championships were held there in recent years. (Cologne recently added professional American football to its attractions, joining the NFL Europe alongside its nearby rivals Düsseldorf and Frankfurt.)
We also discovered that in the spring, Cologne is just blooming with flowers. With the proliferation of tulips of every possible color, you will think you are in Holland (well, in fact, you aren't that far away from Holland). The fifth photograph shows the city's botanical garden, located about a mile away from the Cathedral, not far from the city's Zoo. Inside the grounds are numerous gardens, greenhouses, and artificial cascades. If you have the time to get away from the city center, seek this out. Also, Cologne has a massive park on the opposite bank that is in full bloom during the spring, as evidenced by the sixth photograph. This was just a sampling of the huge garden of tulips that dominated one whole section of the park. The park is on the east bank almost directly across the zoo, and access back and forth is available by a cable car ride that also offers tremendous high views of the Rhein River.
Cologne is also known for a unique beer style that is available almost everywhere in the city. Called the kölsch, it is a special combination of ale and lager, meaning it uses two different yeasts. Served in small thin glasses (only 2dl or 6 ounces at a time), it must be drunk quickly while cold as it acquires a stale taste rapidly... but when fresh, it is among the finest styles of beer in the world.
It's not hard to understand why we mark Cologne as one of our favorite spots. It is an instant hit with visitors because you don't have to go out of your way to find what you're looking for. It is also a good all-weather place because there's plenty to do indoors, and believe us when we say we've hit some bad weather there. This city should be high on anyone's German itineraries.
Also available: Segment on the Cologne Christmas Market
Eight trips taken between 2001 and 2004 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin